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On Fear: The Islam Edition, Or, Do You Know My Friend Wa’el? September 22, 2010

We last got together about ten days ago, when I put up a story that hoped to explain to the Islamic world that, Qur’an burning aside, we don’t really hate either them, or our own Constitution.

I pointed out that, just like everywhere else, about 20% of our population are idiots, that this means about 60,000,000 of us might, at any time, be inclined to burst into fits of random stupidity, such as the desire to burn Qur’ans to make some sort of statement, and that the same First Amendment that protects the freedom of stupid speech also protects the rights of Islamic folks to freely build mosques…and finally, that this apparent “paradox of freedom” is exactly why the US is the kind of country that many Islamic folks the world over wish they lived in as well.

I then went off to enjoy my Godson’s wedding, and I ignored the posting until the next Monday.

On the two dozen sites where it could be found, this was apparently considered to be a fairly innocuous message…with one giant exception, which is what we’ll be talking about today.

Long story short, some portion of this country’s population has some bizarre ideas about Islamic folks…but maybe if they knew my friend Wa’el, they might see things a bit differently.

This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those that feel

Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, in a letter, August, 1776

So all of this took place at Newsvine…and if you’re not familiar with how things work there, users may “seed” a story that they find of interest, so that it may attract the interest of others. What happens is that the user reposts a shortened version of the original story, along with a link back to the source.

My original posting on the site had fewer than ten comments, but by Monday Newsvine user btco’s seeded version of my story had about 300 comments; today there are more than 625.

Those who were not liking the story basically came down to one of a few categories of responders; here’s one example…

…I live a few minutes from Dearbornistan in Michigan and I can tell you that, as a place with a great deal of Muslims, they barely speak out against the Islamofacists that kill. There is outrage; however, but that outrage is aimed at America instead of the Islamofacists that should be the target of the aforementioned outrage. In fact, Dearborn has seen Muslims verbally attack Christians and forbid them for handing out Christian pamphlets, their 1st amendment right to do so, as this goes against the @!$%#ed up Sharia Law. Until Dearbornistan demands that they will abide willingly with the constitution and ignore the racist and misogynic crap that is Sharia law, then Dearbornistan Muslims side with the enemy and that enemy is Islam.

…and here’s another:

Christianity underwent reformation and was tamed by enlightenment period (during which, BTW, was harshly criticized).

Islam is in its original forms, claws and all.

And people like you, who for some dubious reason think it should be allowed to be what it is are doing great disservice for Muslims whose minds are set for the reforms and who want to live like normal, 21 century people, but are forced to “submit” to medieval dogma.

The idea that all Islamic folks worship a Moon God, that neither democracy nor any other religion can co-exist alongside Islam, that after beating them, all Islamic men send their four wives out to distribute “terror tomatoes” among the infidel population, and that, for adherents of Islam, both the Bible and the Constitution are immoral and corrupt all seems to be accepted wisdom for a bunch of the commenters (except for the “terror tomato” part, which I made up myself); it all seems to come from an apparently long-circulating email that was posted in the comments over and over that purports to prove that Muslims can’t be good Americans.

So is all this true?

Well…let’s start with the question of whether Islamic people can co-exist with democracy…and to help answer that question, let me introduce you to my friend Wa’el.

Wa’el Nawara has been trying to advance the interests of democracy in Egyptian politics for many years now, in the form of his work for the El-Ghad Party, in the face of an Egyptian Government that has been ruled, since the end of King Farouk’s reign, by just one political party, the (secular) NDP. The founder of El-Ghad, Ayman Nour, was imprisoned and tortured for basically getting 8% of the vote in a 2005 Presidential election against the current President, Hosni Mubarak.

To prevent this from happening again, it is also alleged that the Egyptian Government helped to orchestrate a temporarily successful “takeover” of the party from within. (This is not uncommon; the Egyptians security apparatus has acted against numerous parties, including the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.)

Shortly after Wa’el and I became acquainted (I had been researching a series of stories about Egyptian politics when we were introduced) he was inside the offices of his own Party, which were burned by a mob that was allegedly associated with Egyptian State Security (an event that was recorded, live, by people across the street). Afterwards Wa’el, along with many of the 30 other people who were in the building, were arrested and detained for…you guessed it…suspicion of arson.

It’s not just Wa’el, or the other members of his Party…nor the other members of other Parties, either.

If were to take the time, you’d find out there’s a Center for Democracy in Lebanon, you’d discover that Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and even Saudi Arabia have all held recent local elections, and you’d find out there’s even a debate in the UAE as to whether adopting democratic reforms might be appropriate.

Outside the Gulf, India’s current President is their third Muslim President, Indonesia, which is 80% Muslim, elects their Presidents (even as they struggle with sectarian violence)…and all of that tells me that anyone who thinks Islam and democracy are incompatible should do some more reading.

Can Islam accept the presence of other religions?

One answer can be found in what is today’s Spain, but what used to be Andalucía (or Al-Andalus, if you prefer Arabic), where Moors ruled for centuries over Jews with far more compassion and respect than they ever received under Christian dominion; another, in today’s Egypt, where Christian Copts and Muslims have lived together for thousands of years, even as tensions have increased recently between the two groups.

Does Wa’el beat his four wives?

Not as far as I can tell—and if his one wife ever found out he had three other wives…I’m guessing that wouldn’t go so well for Wa’el.

Is the Bible corrupt to those who follow Islam?

Those who follow “mainstream” Islam believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that He was crucified. Is that corruption? I don’t know, and I guess you’ll have to decide that one for yourself.

Now we need to be fair here, and acknowledge that one branch of Islam does indeed represent much of what my most conservative friends are afraid of: Wahhabi Ikhban. Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about the sect:

Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab was concerned with the way the people of Najd engaged in practices he considered polytheistic, such as praying to saints; making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques; venerating trees, caves, and stones; and using votive and sacrificial offerings. He was also concerned by what he viewed as a laxity in adhering to Islamic law and in performing religious devotions, such as indifference to the plight of widows and orphans, adultery, lack of attention to obligatory prayers, and failure to allocate shares of inheritance fairly to women.

When Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab began to preach against these breaches of Islamic laws, he characterized customary practices as jahiliya, the same term used to describe the ignorance of Arabians before the Prophet. Initially, his preaching encountered opposition, but he eventually came under the protection of a local chieftain named Muhammad ibn Saud, with whom he formed an alliance. The endurance of the Wahhabi movement’s influence may be attributed to the close association between the founder of the movement and the politically powerful Al Saud in southern Najd (see The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam, 1500-1818 , ch. 1).

This association between the Al Saud and the Al ash Shaykh, as Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and his descendants came to be known, effectively converted political loyalty into a religious obligation. According to Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab’s teachings, a Muslim must present a bayah, or oath of allegiance, to a Muslim ruler during his lifetime to ensure his redemption after death. The ruler, conversely, is owed unquestioned allegiance from his people so long as he leads the community according to the laws of God. The whole purpose of the Muslim community is to become the living embodiment of God’s laws, and it is the responsibility of the legitimate ruler to ensure that people know God’s laws and live in conformity to them.

So what have we learned today?

Well, we learned that there is a community of Americans out there who are profoundly afraid of Islam, or anything connected with it, and the odds are that they know very little about the religion, other than what they’ve seen and copied and pasted, over and over, in a particularly ignorant email.

My friend Wa’el, on the other hand, lives a life that disproves those myths: in addition to being the target of a mob, he’s been jailed, along with many of his friends and associates, for trying to create a more democratic Egypt, he has just the one wife, who lives as an equal in their house, and his own country, Egypt, is one of numerous Islamic countries that have other religions well-established within their borders.

We also learned that numerous countries with Islamic populations are countries with varying degrees of representative democracy…and that the world’s largest democracy just inaugurated their third Muslim President.

Now the question that we’re addressing today is whether Muslims can be good Americans—and the fact is that Wa’el and his family would make great Americans…even though they’re not…and if I can point to Muslims who would make great Americans and live halfway around the world…how much you wanna bet we can find tens of thousands more in the heart of Dearbornistan?

 

On Catching Up, Or, Good News Told, And The Bush Book Reviewed March 26, 2009

So many times when we get together you have to put up with me complaining about something…and there are lots of other times when it’s me warning about events that are looming in our future.

Even though they’re conversations we need to have, they’re often not very emotionally satisfying.

Today we depart from that pattern, in a very good way.

It’s “follow-up day”; and the conversation takes us to three “happy places”: two “problem” stories that have recent positive progress to report—and, just because I care about you, Gentle Reader, an exclusive preview of the George W. Bush autobiography, obtained with considerable effort from an unnamed and particularly well-placed source.

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in and tell you what you need to know.

“Why don’t you like girls?”
“They’re too biased.”
“Biased?”
“Yeah…bias this and bias that—until I’m busted.”

–Joke 5997, 10,000 Jokes, Toasts, & Stories, Lewis and Faye Copeland

In June of 2007 we ran the first of a series of stories describing how some school kids who had parents that owed money to the school—in one case, $7.50–were being served “alternate meals”…which meant that if Mom or Dad forget to send the money, the kid gets a cheese sandwich, while everyone else gets the regular hot meal…which meant that, in some cases, the hot meals were literally taken from the hands of children at the cash register…after which the kids are sent to classrooms where we spend about half a billion tax dollars annually to try to teach them healthy life habits—like not using food as a weapon.

We became aware of all of this because parents in Chula Vista, California decided to take on the local Elementary School District; who felt that implementing this policy in the District made so much financial sense that it outweighed the potential harm to the affected students.

Well, lots of parents didn’t like it…and sometimes parents win.

A partial victory was achieved in February of 2008, when the parents (led by Will and Cyndi Perno, and Alice Coronado) were able to influence first the California Food Policy Advocates…and then, even more importantly, Fabian Nuñez, the former Speaker of the California State Assembly.

Pressure was applied…resulting in this:

“Irrespective of a student’s financial ability to pay for a meal, the laws cited above require that all students eligible for free and reduced-price meals receive a reimbursable meal during each school day. The reimbursable meal shall be the same meal choice offered to students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals [EC 49557(c)]. Therefore, school districts/county offices of education (COEs) cannot serve an alternate meal to a student eligible for a free or reduced-price meal who does not have the ability to pay or provide a medium of exchange for his/her meal on a given day.

School districts/COEs need to formulate a plan to ensure that children eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals are not treated differently from other children with respect to meal service.”

–From the Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin, California Department of Education, February 2008 (emphasis is from the original document).

It took another year of pressure, but Will Perno sent an email to let me know that the new policy the Chula Vista Elementary School District adopted just this month ends the practice of serving these lunches altogether:

“…Our research has shown that the alternate meal program is no longer an effective intervention tool for managing unpaid balances. Thus, we are eliminating the alternative meal.”

–Letter to parents, March 2, 2009, from Superintendent Lowell J. Billings

(Victory in California is not, however, victory nationwide…and just last month Albuquerque Public Schools started a “cheese sandwich policy” of their own—which is already causing trouble.

Does your District have this sort of policy?
Take a few minutes this week and find out…)

New Butler: “At what time, Sir, would you wish to dine as a rule?”
Profiteer: “What time do the best people dine?”
New Butler: “At different times, Sir.”
Profiteer: “Very well. Then, I, too, will dine at different times.”

–Joke 6767, 10,000 Jokes, Toasts, & Stories, Lewis and Faye Copeland

Regular readers are likely to have also noticed a series of four stories in this space on aspects of Egyptian politics.

We have discussed the fact that opposing the ruling National Democratic Party, represented by President Hosni Mubarak, can be construed as unconstitutional—and criminal to boot—and we described how running against Mr. Mubarak for President of Egypt in 2005 was the reason Ayman Nour of the El-Ghad Party had been spending the past several years in prison.

The imprisonment of Nour had not marked the end of violent State harassment against the El-Ghad party…so it was quite a surprise to hear that Ayman Nour had been unexpectedly released about four weeks ago.

Wa’el Nawara, who leads El-Ghad today, sent me these comments regarding Nour’s release:

“Ayman Nour was released today around 6pm where he just walked into his home at Zamalek, Cairo, unexpectedly. A media frenzy broke out and in a few minutes, his home was packed with reporters from local and international news agencies.

His release came as a result from the Egyptian Attorney General, on medical grounds! Nour was first arrested on 29th January 2005, 90 days after El Ghad Party was given legal status in October 2004. Ayman Nour was first released on 12th March 2005 and he ran against Mubarak in Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election Egypt witnessed where he came first runner up after Mubarak.

Nour was then re-arrested on 5th December 2005 – merely 90 days (again) after his participation in Presidential Elections, sentenced to 5 years in Jail on 25th December 2005. Appeal was turned down in May 2006.

Upon his release 2 days ago, Ayman Nour announced that he seeks no revenge, that he is calmer and more patient than ever and that he will focus his efforts to rebuild El Ghad party to advance the cause of reform, liberty and democracy in Egypt.

We hope that this may be the start of a new era in Egypt’s political scene, where a new social contract can be drafted through a package of comprehensive reform…

…We shall strive to create a national dialogue with opposition leaders to reach some consensus on an Agenda of Reform. We have no reservations to even engage reformist wing from NDP in such an agenda. But we need to agree that the outcome of such dialogue must be some sort of a meaningful political process built on the principles of pluralism, real democracy and freedom.”

(It has been hazardous to be a blogger in Egypt as well, and the recent release of Mohamed Adel, combined with the news of Nour’s release, means we need to take a fifth look at the view from Egypt. Stay tuned.)

And finally…we review the preview chapters of the George W. Bush autobiography.

To give you an idea of what the book is about, a few words from the Random House press release:

“Tentatively titled “Decision Points,” the book will not be a conventional memoir, but instead will focus exclusively on approximately a dozen of the most interesting and important decisions in the former President’s personal and political life. Mr. Bush will write candidly about, among other topics, his decision to run for the presidency; how he chose his closest advisors, including Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Condoleezza Rice; the terrorist attacks of 9/11; the decisions to send American troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; the response to Hurricane Katrina; his commitment to fight AIDS around the world; the formation of his stem cell research policy; his relationships with his father, mother, siblings, and wife; his decision to quit drinking; and how he found faith. The former President will write the book himself, with the assistance of researchers, and has already commenced the writing process.

“My goal is to bring the reader inside the Oval Office for the most consequential moments of my personal and political life. I look forward to painting a vivid picture of the information I had, the principles I followed, and the decisions I made. I am spending time on the book every day, and I am thrilled to be working with the team at Crown,” said the former President.”

As I said, I’ve seen some of the advance pages of the book, and here are a few impressions:

–We are fortunate that this book was written after 1998, because before then it would not have been possible to really do the subject justice.

Of course, that was the year 24 new colors were added to the Crayola palette…and as far as I’m concerned, Jungle Green, which is what I would have used in the past to color in Dubya’s flight suit on the “Iraq and Afghanistan” page, is just not as authentic as Mountain Meadow Green.

The same was true on the “Katrina” page. To simulate the color of the water coming into New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico I combined Caribbean Green and Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown…and mixing Macaroni and Cheese and Olive Green captures the exterior of the Superdome so, so, nicely.

None of this would have been possible without those 24 extra colors…and as so often happens, better tools make the telling of history ever more engaging and accurate—enriching our understanding of events in the process.

–I was worried that I would have trouble sharpening my crayon enough to make Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside The U.S. legible…but lucky for me, that page was missing from the preview copy.

–What I’ve seen of the book prompts a quick—and admittedly snarky–question: when Mr. Bush says that he’ll be “working with the assistance of researchers”…isn’t that kind of like OJ Simpson telling reporters that he’s busy “looking for the real killers?”

(I was disappointed, I must admit, that the advance copy did not include the “Orange Jumpsuit” page, either: choosing between Atomic Tangerine, Burnt Orange, Neon Carrot, and Mango Tango had taken nearly an hour and two replays of a Ted Nugent song…and with the page missing all that time was expended, with no tangible result produced.

I had also picked out Burnt Orange, by the way, for the fiber optic cables in the AT&T network switching center in San Francisco, but, again, the regret of a missing page…)

So there we are: for today we have three great stories…and two of them don’t even require you to stay within the lines, which is always nice.

Ayman Nour is out of jail, which may be part of a bigger story, school lunches are no longer punishment in California…and we had a spot of fun with Mr. Bush and his impending book, for which I hope Laura Bush will forgive us.

And as for me?
Time to get online and see if I can order another Macaroni And Cheese to replace the one I used up on the Superdome.

Ah, the troubles of a writer…

 

On The View From Egypt, Part One, Or, How Professionals Rig Elections October 3, 2008

It has been but a few hours since Sarah Palin took the stage to have a conversation with Joe Biden, and of course the Nation has a ton of questions.

What will happen now?
How will we view all this in a few days?
How will it affect McCain and Obama?

I don’t know…and I’m not even going to try to figure it out right this minute.

Instead, we’re going to take a trip halfway across the world to a country that has been essential to understanding the Middle Eastern story, has been at the center of international conflicts time and time again…and has lessons to teach us that, if we learn them well, could make us a much smarter “Foreign Policy Nation” than we are today.

The country? Egypt.

So grab your virtual passport…and after we arrive, there are a few people I want you to meet.

This is part one of a bigger story, and over the next few days I’m going to try to give you some recent history (well, recent for a country with a history that goes back 7,000 years…), along with an explanation of how political factions are aligned today…how some political factions aren’t even allowed to align…and a few words about the hazards of having an opinion in Egypt—even if it’s online.

Included will be a critical lesson: Democracy and Freedom, which we say we support, can lead to the election of people we don’t like…and that the true measure of a democracy is accepting—and sometimes even encouraging–those outcomes, even if we don’t like them.

So before we can talk about Egyptian politics, we have to talk about…Egyptian Politics.

The Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt has provisions that pretty much guarantee that there will be no meaningful political opposition. We’ll go right to the Constitution itself for an explanation of how it’s done (where it appears, emphasis was added by me):

PART ONE
THE STATE

Article 5
The political system of the Arab Republic of Egypt is a multiparty one, within the framework of the basic elements and principles of the Egyptian society as stipulated in the Constitution (Political parties are regulated by law).

PART TWO
BASIC CONSTITUENTS OF THE SOCIETY
CHAPTER 1
Social and Moral Constituents

Article 7
Social solidarity is the basis of the society.

PART THREE
PUBLIC FREEDOMS, RIGHTS AND DUTIES

Article 47
Freedom of opinion is guaranteed.
Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law.
Self-criticism and constructive criticism is the guarantee for the safety of the national structure.

Article 48
Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed.
Censorship on newspapers is forbidden as well as notifying, suspending or cancelling them by administrative methods.
In a state of emergency or in time of war a limited censorship may be imposed on the newspapers, publications and mass media in matters related to public safety or purposes of national security in accordance with the law.

The “State of Emergency” provision was invoked in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat—and it has been faithfully renewed by his successor, President Hosni Mubarak, every two years since, most recently in May of this year.

You may have noticed that political parties are regulated by law. Specifically, it’s Law 177/2005. Below is the important language (emphasis will again be added where I think it is needed):

Article 4:
For a political party to be established or maintained, it shall satisfy the following conditions:

ii: The party’s principles, goals, platforms, policies or modalities of exercising its activities shall not contradict the Constitution or requirements of maintaining national unity, social peace and the democratic system.

iii: The party’s platform shall constitute an addition to the political life according to specific methods and goals.

iv: In its principles or platforms or in practicing its activities or selecting its leaderships or members the party shall not be based on religious, class, sectarian, categorical, geographical grounds or on manipulating religious feelings or discrimination on account of origin or creed.

VI: The party shall not pose as a branch of a foreign party or political organization.

Article 7:
A notice in writing shall be submitted to the chairman of Political Parties Affairs Committee stipulated in Article 8 hereof as regards the establishment of the party signed by at least 1000 constituent members whose signatures shall be officially authenticated. The members shall be drawn from at least ten governorates with no less than fifty members from each….

Article 8:
The Political Parties Affairs Committee shall be composed as follows:
1- the Speaker of the Shura Council, as chairman;
2- Minister of Interior;
3- Minister for the People’s Assembly Affairs;
4- three former heads or deputy heads of the judiciary bodies who are not affiliated to any political party; and
5-three public figures who are not affiliated to any political party, as members.
The selection of the members stipulated in Items 4&5 shall be made by a Presidential decree for three years renewable.
The Committee shall have the competence to examine and consider notices of the establishments of the parties according to the provisions of this law, let alone the other competencies stipulated therein…

We will continue with the text of Article 8 in a moment, but before we do, some explanations are in order.

The Shura Council is one of the two halves of Egypt’s Legislative Branch; and it serves a function somewhat similar to that of the United States Senate.

Because Egypt’s National Democratic Party (NDP) controls Parliament and the Presidency, the Political Parties Affairs Committee (PPAC), who grants the license you need to form a political party (and can revoke it as well…) consists of the Speaker of the Shura Council, (obviously, an NDP member), two members of the President’s Cabinet, and six people appointed by the President.

The obvious conflicts between this arrangement and what we would think of as a true multiparty system will be the focus of part two of this story…but for now, we return you to Article 8, already in progress:

…To exercise its competencies, the Committee may demand much documents, papers, data and clarifications at it deems as necessary, from the concerned parties as much time as it determines. It may also demand any documents, papers, data or information from any official or public body and it may conduct on its own or through a sub-committee of its own such research as it may deem appropriate. It may also commision [sic] any such official bodies as it may deem appropriate to conduct or study necessary to reach the truth about matters submitted thereto…

Article 9:
The party shall be a private judicial person…

Article 11:
The resources of the party shall consist in subscriptions of its members, financial support received from the State and the donations by Egyptian natural persons…

The party may not accept any contribution, privilege or benefit from any foreigner, any foreign or international body or from any judicial person type even if it enjoys Egyptian citizenship.

These clauses tell us that the Government’s PPAC can start it’s own investigations of any party—and that Parties are not allowed, by law, to align themselves together in coalitions.

I am often guilty of going too long in these stories…so let’s get to the end of part one.

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the NDP have created an ongoing quarter-century “emergency situation” that allows them to decide who can be a political party, that allows them to revoke the license of a party that they feel violates the rules they create…and because of the Constitutional mandate to protect “National Unity”, any political party that says the NDP is doing anything wrong is potentially in violation of the law.

These rules create conditions that are impossible to satisfy, and as a result politicians, protesters…and even bloggers…are at risk for arrest and imprisonment. But that’s a story for another day—and to make the story better, when we get together next time we’ll be meeting one of those politicians in a very close-up and personal way.